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Dancing Through the Archives: Dance, Manuscripts, and Medieval Religion

Published: June 12, 2018

Last summer, I was fortunate to receive a dissertation travel grant from the NACBS. This grant funded a seven-week archival research trip to the United Kingdom, during which I combed through sermon manuscripts and psalters in fourteen different archives in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Dublin, and York. In these archives, I looked at manuscripts dating from the late thirteenth century to the early seventeenth century. I poured over tiny psalters that fit in the palm of my hand and paged through other manuscripts that were so large that opening them required multiple desks. Some manuscripts had light brown ink, tiny cramped script, and no illumination or decoration—the vellum often dark and spotted, with multiple defects that scribes carefully wrote around in order to not waste a single bit of writing surface. Clearly, these were made with economy in mind. Other manuscripts contrasted starkly: covered in illumination and gilt, written in jet-black ink on pale and flawless vellum. These manuscripts had well-spaced words and carefully drawn margins, filled with flowers, vines, biblical characters, and fantastical creatures. Yet, all of these manuscripts presented the same texts, the same sermons and sermon tales, the same messages about what it meant to live as a medieval Christian, often verbatim

Both the diversity and consistency of these manuscripts act as a tangible representation of my findings in my dissertation. My project looks at discussions of dance in vernacular religious texts from 1280 to 1640. Tracing presentations of the psalms, of specific Scripture verses that mention dance, of David and Salome, and of medieval sermon tales across this several-hundred year span means considering texts aimed at dramatically different audiences, texts placed in very different political, social, and economic contexts. Heading into the archives this past summer, having only worked with edited and printed editions of these medieval sermon cycles and psalters, I expected that the discussions of dance in these manuscripts would reflect this variation. I anticipated that the big shifts in ideas about worship, about sacred space, about profane bodies, about gender, and about dance that my project engages would show up in these individual manuscripts in gradual modifications in wording, in small changes to each narrative over time, or in additional comments added to later versions of each sermon tale. And in my first few days in the archives, confronted with such dramatic discrepancies in the physical manuscripts themselves, this expectation seemed to be proven correct.

What I found instead, as I dug deeper into the manuscripts and archives, was consistency, across multiple regions, years, and audiences. Changes in the message presented about dance occurred as entirely new sermon cycles or glosses of the psalms were created, not in small shifts within individual versions of sermon cycles.  This approach to dance speaks to a broader insight into medieval religion and the late medieval church. In the years leading up to the Reformation in England, priests and clerics of all stations presented their congregations with a consistent message about what it meant to live out an orthodox version of one's faith, for all members of the church and community. However, orthodoxy was not static or rigid, for, as the changes that occurred during my project show, the medieval church was also a vital and evolving institution. Changes in theology drove changes in sermon texts and in the messages presented to lay audiences about what it meant to live out their faith. Consistency in message was met with diversity in parish practice, as shown in much of the scholarship on the late medieval parish and on ritual in late medieval England. Yet, the significance of consistency in teaching should not be overlooked, as the ideas about dance, gender, and sacred bodies preached Sunday after Sunday from the late medieval pulpit exerted a noticeable influence on the treatment of women in early modern congregations and on definitions of the proper performance of gender for men and women alike.

These manuscripts, with their consistency and diversity, embody the key findings of my research. However, they also provide glimpses of the individuality and humanity of the medieval bodies my research studies. One manuscript in the Bodleian stands out to me as a reminder of the humanity of my subjects. In this manuscript, one with imperfect vellum and pale ink, the scribe starts to add tiny fish into the margins at intervals. As the manuscript continues, so do the fish– and as the scribe's apparent boredom increases, so do the number of teeth on each fish. By the end of the manuscript, the margins contain fish with rows of teeth that bring to mind sharks rather than fish, and each fish clutches elaborate flowers or vines in its rather toothy mouth. In reading that collection of sermons, I suddenly had a vision of a medieval scribe much like the students I know: a young man who doodles to stay awake in the long hours spent copying sermons and moral texts, and who probably counted down the hours until his day ended. The NACBS dissertation travel grant provided me with a chance to not only deepen and strengthen my research and argument, but also to experience the history I study in a new way. My time in the archives made my medieval subjects tangible in a way I found personally meaningful. The chance to work with these physical manuscripts gave me new ways to teach and talk about the people of the medieval past in ways that I have seen resonate with my students. And on the best of days, these tales from the archives even draw my students' attention away from their own doodles to ideas, people, and events far removed from their present reality.

Lynneth J. Miller is a PhD candidate at Baylor University


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